Domestic heat can be substantially decarbonised by deploying hybrid heat pump and hydrogen boiler systems, according the government’s climate change advisor.

The new report, titled ‘Hydrogen in a low-carbon economy’, says hydrogen can help cut energy emissions at a lower cost than the CCC has previously estimated while making an “important contribution” to the UK’s broader decarbonisation efforts.

The CCC’s assessment is that heat pumps, powered by increasingly low-carbon electricity, have the potential to provide heat efficiently most of the time. They could be retrofitted around existing boilers, meaning no need to rip out radiators.

Hydrogen boilers could then provide back-up heat to meet peak demands on the coldest winter days.

The report says these hybrid systems could “almost completely” displace fossil fuel use in buildings. And emissions could be further slashed by installing energy efficiency measures.

The CCC says hydrogen cannot fully replace natural gas because it could not be manufactured in large enough quantities.

And it concludes that full electrification is not feasible due to the scale of back-up generation that would be required during periods of peak demand.

It says: “It is not prudent to plan now on achieving the necessary emissions reductions by 2050 only from hydrogen (i.e. using hydrogen in boilers as we use natural gas now) or via full electrification.”

The report also says a hybrid solution is more feasible and is likely to command greater public support than either the full electrification of heat or the complete “like-for-like” replacement of natural gas with hydrogen.

Deploying hybrid heat pumps would increase near-term reductions in emissions from buildings and provide “greater confidence” that very high levels of savings can be achieved by 2050.

Going down this route would preserve the option of switching the remaining gas boilers to hydrogen at a later date.

And in this scenario of a total natural gas phase out, the total volume of hydrogen required would fall by around 70 per cent for heating and half across the entire energy system.

The report urges the government to commit to the development of a fully-fledged UK strategy for decarbonised heat within the next three years, including “clear signals” on the future use of the UK’s gas grid.

It says continuing to rely on isolated, piecemeal demonstration projects may lead to hydrogen remaining “forever an option for the future”.

“The longer it takes for hydrogen to become a proven option, the smaller the role it will be able to play by 2050.

“If hydrogen is to play a substantial long-term role, progress towards deployment of low-carbon hydrogen at scale must start now.”

Despite the high upfront costs, strategic decisions about hydrogen development will have to addressed in the 2020s in order to meet the UK’s Climate Change Act’s 2050 emissions reductions target.

It says projects could include starting hydrogen production at scale as part of a carbon capture and storage (CCS) cluster and the adaptation of kit like boilers and turbines.

Lord Deben, chairman of the CCC, said: “Hydrogen has the potential to contribute to near-zero carbon energy emissions if used strategically. The government must now decide whether it wishes to develop a UK hydrogen option, taking decisions now that will see the first deployment in the 2020s

“The future now rests on government making a quick decision and fully committing to low-carbon heat within the next three years. This is important to achieving the existing 2050 emissions target, but even more important as we consider whether it is possible for the UK to reach ‘net-zero’ emissions in the future.”

Mike Childs, Friends of the Earth’s head of policy, criticised the CCC for endorsing the manufacture of hydrogen from natural gas using CCS.

He said: “The Committee on Climate Change is right to point to hydrogen as part of our low-carbon future, because it can replace natural gas and is an excellent way of storing energy.

“But the committee is wrong to suggest that hydrogen produced from renewable power is too expensive. The same was originally said about solar power and offshore wind, but with focus and innovation prices have tumbled dramatically. Using natural gas to make hydrogen is still polluting and therefore doesn’t have a future in a zero carbon Britain.”

Further reaction

Energy Networks Association

“Hydrogen offers enormous potential to decarbonise our energy system in the most cost-effective way and the gas networks are already developing technical and strategic solutions for hydrogen-ready grids for homes and businesses.

“But the government must provide the right strategic direction, not only for decarbonising heat but for the whole energy system. With this, the gas networks can optimise network investment, including into existing infrastructure and pipes, and operational decisions for the future.

“The RIIO-1 regulatory price control has proven itself time and time again as a highly effective, incentive-based mechanism for delivering innovation and keeping costs down for the public. The same must be guaranteed for RIIO-2.”

Lawrence Slade, chief executive, Energy UK

“Decarbonising heat is a major challenge and one that we must tackle if we are to meet our climate change targets, so the Committee on Climate Change’s report is an important contribution.

“It may well be that there isn’t a one size fits all solution for all homes and businesses so it is important to explore the various options. That’s why we have been calling for the Government to fund large scale trials to assess the various options and inform the big decisions that will need to be made on heating in the near future.

“If we are to start rolling out low carbon heating systems in the next couple of decades, the Government needs to focus its attention and resources on this challenge without delay.”

Tim Rotheray, director, Association for Decentralised Energy

“Hydrogen has a key role to play in decarbonising the most challenging parts of the energy system – meeting peak heat demands on cold days, enabling process industries to fully decarbonise and cleaning up heavy transport – but we need to ensure we use it sparingly to ensure a cost-effective low carbon transition.

“Today’s report highlights that energy for heating in particular needs to be a mix, with ambitious energy efficiency, heat networks in towns and cities and hybrid hydrogen heat pumps.”

National Infrastructure Commission

“The UK has made great strides in deriving more of its electricity from low carbon sources like wind and solar – the next challenge will be to make progress on reducing emissions from heating.

“Today’s report from the Committee on Climate Change mirrors our own conclusions, that there need to be trials of hydrogen to test it as a viable alternative to natural gas.

“The government are due to respond to our National Infrastructure Assessment with a dedicated strategy next year, which should include plans for how to keep the UK’s energy supply low-carbon and low-cost.”

Mike Foster, chief executive, Energy and Utilities Alliance (EUA)

“Today’s report is yet another rubber stamp for hydrogen for heat, as the UK assesses the potential role of hydrogen in the UK’s low-carbon economy.

“We are pleased that another report concludes that hydrogen will play an important role in decarbonising heat. It also highlights the challenges that the industry needs to overcome, which EUA and its members have already started working on through the gas networks innovation trials such as Hynet, H21, and the Freedom Project.

“Early government commitment is crucial to an affordable, secure, low carbon future. We trust that this report provides government with the confidence to work towards decarbonising heat by greening the gas that goes into 85 per cent of UK homes, using hydrogen as the principal method.”

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